Maya Angelou—as priceless as her collection
Donates collection to Schomburg Center
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News
Equal parts renaissance denizen, poet, memoirist, educator, and civil rights advocate, Maya Angelou is that phenomenal first lady of American arts and letters. Generous to a fault, she is the rare gift that keeps giving back to the source, her society, her community. Recently, Angelou donated most of her archives—a collection of personal and professional letters, drafts of poems, and novels, spanning her 40-year literary career and beyond—to the Harlem-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a special research branch of the N.Y. Public Library (NYPL). There was no mention of any dollar value associated with the Maya Angelou Collection; however, it would be fair to say that it is priceless.
Three generations of voracious book lovers—Bread and Roses HS students; writers such as Louise Meriweather, Ntozake Shange, Sonia Sanchez, Camille Yarborough, and Dr. Brenda Greene; vocalists Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, choreographer George Faison, and scores of journalists like Herb Boyd and David Greaves—witnessed Angelou symbolically transfer her treasured Collection to Schomburg chief Howard Dodson and NYPL chief Paul LeClerc at the Schomburg Center. Dodson enthused: “Her papers will be alongside those by Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X, and Dr. Ralph Bunche.”
Angelou prefaced her official remarks by mellifluously navigating into spoken word/blank verse terrain, singing, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God gave man the rainbow, the sign of hope.”
She added: “That is the role of the library … and the one in Harlem… is the Schomburg. Hello!” She said, “As soon as I am around books, I am OK. No bad can happen to you in the library. You can’t be raped nor mugged in the library.” She reflected on her first library visit, a segregated venue, which housed about 300 books, when she was 7 years old.
“Today, my home in North Carolina houses about 400 books,” she said.
What exactly did the Schomburg acquire? What are the Angelou Papers? A collector of African American works, Angelou donated more than 300 boxes, about 70 percent of her personal and professional papers to the Schomburg. The inventory includes five letters by Booker T. Washington, which she owned; two letters from W.E.B. DuBois; letters by Frederick Douglass, an extensive study of the works of Paul Robeson, and a Selma Burke sculpture, for starters.
The Collection also contains personal letters from Angelou’s good friends like James Baldwin, whose letters reference Angela Davis’ travels with the “world’s biggest drag queen,” and like Malcolm X whose letter was profound with thanks for her courtesies during his visit to Ghana; drafts of her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and notes from her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” which was commissioned by President-elect Bill Clinton and which she recited at his inauguration.
Born in Missouri in 1928, Angelou was raised in Arkansas. She studied many of the performing arts like theater and dance with Martha Graham and performed with modern dance master Alvin Ailey. A linguist, she is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Fante, a West African language. She traveled extensively in the U.S. and beyond, living in Egypt, Paris, and Ghana, where she worked as a journalist and college professor.
Now 82, Angelou still maintains a frenetic work schedule, which would challenge most fortysomethings. A Wake Forest University professor, she commutes between her home there and her Harlem brownstone. “Great Food, All Day Long, Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart,” her 31st and latest book was published earlier this year. Angelou also manages a rigorous speaking engagement calendar. She was Dr. King’s SCLC northern coordinator.
“I am Black but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me because I am Black because the sun hath scorched me.” —Song of Solomon
The 1960s not only birthed a political revolution, it created a Black cultural renaissance that impacted music, art, beauty and fashion. Known as the “Black is Beautiful” movement, the era brought a renewed sense of identity and pride.
A people newly delighted in liberty by federal decree yet tormented by popular scorn and legal indifference exemplified courage amid a rapidly changing national landscape during the 1940s. New citizens from Eastern Europe, the Orient and Latin America would call America home from New York City to Chicago, from San Francisco to Seattle, and from Louisiana and Texas and throughout the Southwest. As immigrants came to America, African Americans were also on the move, migrating from the South to better opportunities in a burgeoning new industrial age.
By the 1970s, the racial strife and turmoil of the 1960s had transformed into a social revolution by virtue of the burgeoning feminist, gay liberation, Black power, grey power movements, the Jesus freaks and an overwhelming rejection of the Vietnam War. The 1970s also saw a relaxing of aggressions (a détente of sorts) between Blacks and Whites in forging a unified path to more intrapersonal cooperation and interpersonal communication.
South Carolina native Nick Ashford, of the legendary Motown songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson died of throat cancer at a hospital in New York City on Monday He was 70.
As the Fourth of July approaches, it bears looking beyond the pomp and circumstance to examine the original precept behind this festival of independence. For many residents of color, it is the most paradoxical of holidays because, they argue with much justification, that its celebration is a hollow one, since many of the freedoms it salutes remain elusive to them.